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State ex rel. North River Insurance Co. v. Chafin

State ex rel. North River Insurance Co. v. Chafin

Case No. 
13-0897
Type of Proceeding: 
Original Jurisdiction
Issues: 

The question presented is whether the trial court committed clear legal error in refusing to dismiss the plaintiff’s complaint under W.Va. Code 56-1-1a (i.e., forum non conveniens) and refusing to grant a stay under W.Va. Code 56-6-10 (i.e., the law governing stays where other, related issues are being litigated in other legal proceedings).

Background: 

The backdrop for this appeal is a complicated series of coverage cases that are being litigated in Pennsylvania and Delaware.

Mine Safety Appliances Company (MSA) manufactures mine safety equipment, including dust respirators. The plaintiffs were West Virginia coal miners who alleged that they were exposed to coal dust and contracted lung disease because of defective MSA respirators. The plaintiffs reached settlements with MSA under which they received (1) a fixed sum of money, and (2) an assignment of MSA’s rights to recover additional sums from MSA’s insurer, North River. MSA and North River have been engaged in protracted litigation involving coverage under MSA’s policy.

The plaintiffs amended their pleadings to join North River and assert claims under their assignments. North River moved to dismiss the claims citing the law governing forum non conveniens, W.Va. Code 56-1-1a. Alternatively, North River asked to stay this case until the out-of-state coverage cases were fully litigated. The trial court denied both motions, and North River proceeded by way of writ of prohibition.

Positions of the Parties: 

Petitioner:

North River argues that by accepting assignments from MSA the plaintiffs became, in effect, “extension of MSA” for purposes of forum non conveniens. Because the coverage issues were already pending in Pennsylvania and Delaware, the trial court should have found that there was an alternative forum for determining those issues and that dismissal was appropriate under W.Va. Code 56-1-1a. North River argues alternatively that, under W.Va. Code 56-6-10, the trial court should have issued a stay to permit the coverage issues to go forward in the out-of-state coverage cases.

Respondents (Underlying Plaintiffs):

The plaintiffs begin by asserting that there is no clear-cut legal error that warrants issuance of a writ of prohibition. With regard to the merits, the plaintiffs say that the trial court was right in rejecting the argument that they were merely “extensions” of the assignor, MSA. The assignments were bona fide and granted enforceable contract rights to the plaintiffs in their own name. Furthermore, the trial court was correct applying the remaining factors under W.Va. Code 56-1-1a and in concluding that the plaintiffs should be free to enforce their contract rights in West Virginia.

Respondent (MSA):

Like the plaintiffs, MSA agues this is, in reality, an interlocutory appeal and is not a proper matter for prohibition. In any event, the trial court acted appropriately in denying North River’s motion to dismiss. In fact, MSA points out that even without the assignment the plaintiffs would have a right to litigate the coverage issues under Christian vs. Sizemore, 181 W.Va. 628, 383 S.E.2d 810 (1989). Therefore, North River’s argument that the plaintiffs are merely “extension” of MSA is without merit.

Probable Impact: 

This case is on the Rule 19 docket. Accordingly, we can expect the issuance of a per curiam opinion. However, the opinion may give some insight into how the Supreme Court will deal with assignments in future cases.

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